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Utah Jazz

Boris Diaw showing off his old man game in the playoffs

David Vertsberger

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Utah Jazz's Boris Diaw, left, drives against Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin during the first half in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, April 18, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The playoffs are a brutal exercise in covering one’s weaknesses and exposing the opponents’ own flaws. Wings that can’t shoot get ignored and benched. Bigs that can’t defend the rim are attacked mercilessly. Inexperienced players often aren’t ready for the stakes or physicality. Essentially, if you’re not a net positive, you’re either not playing, or you’re aiding in your team’s defeat.

This reality makes every possession in the postseason a high-intensity and important one, but can also rob us of some of our favorite players. For example, the Celtics aren’t going to play Jaylen Brown in a tight series against the eighth seed, which is a travesty.

But one player has been carefully treading that thin line between being fun as hell and built for the playoffs. Boris “Tea Time” Diaw has been a consistently entertaining and somewhat reliable presence for his Utah Jazz, and it’s worth looking into how the lumbering, 35-year-old bizarro hybrid pulls it off.

It’s no secret that Diaw is one of the savviest big-men passers in the league, but every minute spent watching him turns into another reminder. Utah’s offense is built upon ball movement and trying to find the best shots, given they don’t have a go-to scorer in the traditional sense. Diaw is built for this system, getting the ball in the high post and surveying the maze of screens and cutters until he makes his pass, or making quick reads as a recipient of the action and finding the open man with a nifty little scoop dish. When the Clippers’ defense scrambles to rotate, Diaw will often get the ball at the elbow and instantaneously swing it to the near corner for an open 3. It’s all pure unselfishness and just a beauty to watch:

But what separates Diaw here is being a knack smarter about this game than most other bigs. In the following clip, most players would initiate a hand-off with George Hill, but Diaw takes a craftier approach:

The lead Diaw puts on that ball for Hill gives his guard room to build speed and doesn’t expose the ball to his man. This isn’t something you’ll see many bigs do. Little things like that swing possessions, which swing games.

Diaw may not bring the numbers — he’s only averaging 4.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 20 minutes a night — but he does bring the tiny stuff that drives opponents nuts. Screens are one pivotal aspect of playoff basketball. Increased physicality means strong picks that actually hamper defenders are big, and Diaw is no easy frame to get around. Watch Chris Paul, a really good defender, get stonewalled: 

Diaw isn’t just a big body to fight through, of course. His basketball IQ plays a role in this area as well, like when he floats the ball beside him just in time for an incoming teammate to grab it, use his screen and go. Or here, when he sees the Clippers discombobulated trying to defend the fast break, and takes advantage by blocking any help from getting to an open shooter:

Diaw’s size also helps him defensively. His advanced age has hurt his mobility, rendering him iffy on that end, but that won’t stop him from just bothering people. He’s mostly in the right position and has great awareness. He hustles his giant bottom off going after loose balls, and makes life hard for guards trying to get around his bulk on hard hedges.

One amazing way he’s slowed down LA’s transition opportunities? Pestering whatever big came down with a defensive rebound, killing the option for a quick outlet or run-out. Matched up against an uber-athletic Clippers frontcourt, Diaw should be getting smoked, but instead he uses every pound he’s got and forces shots like these:

The Jazz will live with that all series long. Although Joe Johnson has stepped in as Utah’s preferred closing power forward, Diaw has held his own in this series when it wasn’t crazy to think he’d get played off the court. It goes to show how far knowledge of the game can carry a player, and how you use your body is just as important as how athletic you are. Diaw is bumping and hip-checking his way through these playoffs without garnering much attention for it, but it is an absolute joy to witness.

David Vertsberger is a freelance NBA writer, whose work has appeared at Grantland, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports and Bleacher Report.

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